This year their focus is on Rodgers and Hart, who for 23 years from 1919 produced some of the greatest hits of the golden age of song-writing.
Before Richard Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein and went in a completely different direction, he wrote around 800 songs with Lorenz Hart, some of the most enduring standards of the Twenties and Thirties. You may not have seen, or even heard of, the musical comedies they came from – Chee-Chee, I Married An Angel, Jumbo and Lido Lady among them but individual numbers live on.
As David Benedict’s swift-moving and urbane script tells us, the strength of the songs belies the flimsiness of their settings: revue-type romances that were to give way to the strong, coherent dramas that Rodgers and Hammerstein pioneered in later decades. Benedict picturesquely describes the earlier pairing’s fare as “dark, bitter chocolate for audiences used to candy floss”.
Cadogan Hall has drawn together its regular team of Simon Green, Maria Friedman, Mary Carewe and Graham Bickley, who gave us Sondheim and Cole Porter compilations in previous years. Daniel Evans, originally slated but now with his hands full with a new job in Sheffield, is worthily replaced this year by Canadian stage star Tim Howar.
And the songs? The team give us some two dozen or more of Dick and Larry’s finest from Manhattan, Blue Moon, Johnny One Note, My Romance, Have You Met Miss Jones, My Funny Valentine to The Lady is a Tramp and, of course, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. With so many classics to choose from, there are bound to be some favourites missing but it’s a satisfying and easily-digestible feast.
There are some interesting juxtapositions the heart-breaking It Never Entered My Mind (Mary Carewe) immediately followed by the dazzlingly witty To Keep My Love Alive (Maria Friedman) and some obvious highlights including an ethereally sweet Blue Moon from Tim Howar. The newcomer is on cracking form too in Spring is Here and Wait Til You See Her. Friedman brings the house down (despite a mid-song dry on the first night) with Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, although to my ear it was a bit of a belt.
Last year’s piano duo is replaced by the welcome depth of a five piece jazz band music director David Shrubsole on piano, James Gambold on percussion, James Pusey on Guitar, Dave Whitford bass, and a hard-working Paul Saunders on a range of reed instruments.
Benedict’s whirlwind tour through the lives and works of the writers is tighter than in previous years, with fewer corny gags (some to be sure) and a less arch presentation by narrator Simon Green. The text brings it all together neatly but it’s the songs that shine, and the reliable Cadogan team pass them on with obvious love and admiration.